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Aidan shines in comedy of terrors

TIM WALKER gives five stars to The Lieutenant of Irishmore at London’s Noël Coward Theatre

The Lieutenant of Irishmore

Noël Coward Theatre, London, until September 8

***** (Five stars)

Over the years, Daniel Radcliffe, Nicole Kidman, Jude Law and Ben Whishaw have all been only too happy to tread the boards for the director Michael Grandage. It’s something of a rite of passage for actors and actresses who hit the big time in films or on television: how they seem to yearn for the validation that a great stage role can bring and to re-connect once again with a living, breathing and responsive audience.

This is nothing new, of course. I remember the late Sir Michael Hordern telling me that he only ever felt fulfilled on a stage. Film work was all well and good, but ultimately for him it was like running a marathon in instalments. He needed to experience the journey his characters embarked upon from start to finish, without anyone shouting ‘cut’ just as he was getting into his stride.

Aidan Turner – into his fourth season of Poldark now – is the latest to come Grandage’s way and the great director has done him proud in The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Martin McDonagh’s play mines a rich seam of unfathomably black humour in the Troubles in Northern Ireland. When it first opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2001, barely three years after the Good Friday agreement, it was considered to be controversial, even dangerous, stuff.

Turner has always had about him the Byronic, romantic aura of Laurence Olivier playing Heathcliff, which makes our first sight of him – casually torturing a man hanging upside down from a rope fastened to the rafters – all the more shocking. It is only as the scene progresses – as the actor deftly communicates how prosaic terrorist acts are and how grindingly inadequate its practitioners – that the humour starts to emerge. With magnificent comic timing, Turner says, as his hapless victim jabbers away about everything that’s gone wrong for him since he awoke that morning: ‘What a bad day you’ve had.’

The thug’s father – Denis Conway, on great form – inadvertently interrupts his lad when he calls him on his mobile to apprise him of the fact that his beloved cat – who is called Wee Thomas (Jet and Lenny take turns in this pivotal role) – appears to have been taken ill. This is the unlikely catalyst – no pun intended – for what turns out to be a bloodbath of epic proportions.

Christopher Oram has fashioned a suitably primitive and claustrophobic stone-walled dwelling for the protagonists to inhabit. What cosy, almost stock characters they all seem until you realise how every one of them has gone completely mad. This is a searing examination of what happens to individuals and to communities when they normalise violence, but it makes us laugh for the simple reason that humanity – when it loses sight of the value of human life – is actually at its most ludicrous.

It is one hell of a challenging role that Turner has chosen for his West End comeback. But this extraordinary actor dazzles, because the cruel, sadistic and demented villain he plays is, in so many other respects, just like the rest of us. This is what makes this unforgettable production at once hilarious and horrifying: I challenge you not to be enthralled.